WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Forest Service projects that the cost of fighting wildfires could rise to $1.8 billion in the next decade, reflecting fire seasons that "have grown longer and more costly," the agency said this week.
The wildfire season is now an average of 78 days longer than it was in 1970, the agency said, and the frequency, size, and severity of those fires has also increased. The report attributes that to climate change:
Changing climatic conditions across regions of the United States are driving increased temperatures -- particularly in regions where fire has not been historically prominent. This change is causing variations and unpredictability in precipitation and is amplifying the effects and costs of wildfire.
The report also notes that climatic shifts are causing shortages of water needed for fighting fires, as well as contributing to a build-up of the vegetation that fuels them. And in some parts of the country, the fire season has stretched to as many as 300 days.
The Forest Service budget for fire suppression has been increased $115 million for the 2015 fiscal year, the agency said, but that money was taken from other programs, such as restoration work. And unless the funding formula is changed, firefighting could burn through two-thirds of the agency's overall budget in the next 10 years.
"As our forests go up in flames, so too does the budget of the U.S. Forest Service, putting at risk lives, property, clean air and water, and jobs for thousands," wrote U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in an op-ed on the topic this week.
He noted that there have been more than 36,000 fires so far in 2015, consuming about 52 percent of the agency's fiscal year budget. That could grow to 67 percent of the budget by 2025.
In the op-ed, Vilsack endorses the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would change the funding structure for wildfires. Rather than allowing firefighting to consume the Forest Service budget, the bill would fund it the way it funds other disasters, such as hurricanes and floods.
One percent of fires currently consume about 30 percent of the Forest Service's firefighting budget, Vilsack said. But under this bill, Congress would fund them as disasters, rather than allowing them to draw money away from other important Forest Service work.
"This approach treats these large, expensive fires as natural disasters while allowing the Forest Service to reinvest funding in forest restoration activities that reduce the threat of catastrophic fires," wrote Vilsack.